Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Family Portrait (5/12)

Part 2

I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that I am in fact the killer. I certainly would have. And for what it’s worth, I say killer, not murderer, for only innocent people get murdered. The sheriff’s wrong about the ice pick; I used a small Phillips screwdriver, which the autopsy report will reveal soon enough. He’s also mistaken about the familiarity of his assailant, though I don’t blame him for making this understandable mistake. Dr. Halleck and her forensic team will discover, moreover, that the victim, Chad Peterson, did not struggle against his killer, namely me, even if he was somewhat conscious, barely, of what was happening to him. I actually extinguished this disgusting creature, slowly, methodically, with malice aforethought, and to my amusement, after subduing him with electrical cords around his neck, arms and legs. I stabbed the bastard in the comfortable confines of my portrait studio. We should be honest and call it what it is: chastisement. Chad the Chastised, shall we say, was a naughty little monkey, yes he was.

I’ve never forgotten his ashen eyes and Adam’s apple. For these physical characteristics alone, tacit signs of human depravity screaming in my ear, I told myself he would regret the day he traipsed into my studio two years ago, his family in tow, making me practically deaf. The way he conducted himself, recounted below, merely provided nails for his own coffin.

The photo session went well enough, despite his four-year-old son crying at the outset. I had to use every trick in the book to get this kid’s cooperation: the plush animals, the promise of M&Ms from my candy dish (“If your mom and dad agree of course.”), or a little circus jig I perform—anything to get him to smile and sit still. His mother, Mrs. Peterson, was evidently incompetent to silence the boy. Before our separation (but after losing her job at the bank), April, my Ex, would sometimes come in and get the kids to sit for the picture; since then I’ve learned how to keep them entertained.

I had the Petersons wait in the anterior room after the shoot while I tinkered with the digital images at the computer. Professional that I am, I could turn this loathsome, ugly family into something less painful to the eyes. If I were a rich man, I’ve often fantasized, I’d takes photos of exclusively beautiful or affluent people, my ample-bosomed secretary having screened them before I enter the room. Because owning a portrait studio and freelancing as part-time crime scene photographer are not lucrative occupations, I can’t afford to be so discriminating, and, granted, my studio is not exactly in the middle of the business district.

Fifteen minutes later I displayed for them an overview of the photos on a big screen, allowing them to pick out the ones they wanted. I then printed out the photos and put them together in the package they had specified upon their arrival. Since they chose one of my more pricey deals, I gave them doubles of everything for free and threw in an additional 5X7 glossy.

“Did you take this? Look at this picture, Chad. Is that Switzerland?” Mrs. Peterson, her sausage finger extended, was looking behind me at a poster on the wall. Most of the framed pictures throughout my studio are mine, minus a couple of black and white Ansel Adams photographs that I’ve gazed at for hours.

The poster Mrs. Peterson specified is one I’m quite proud of: an arresting scene of the German Alps with a cow pasture in the foreground, taken when April and I, and her sister and their parents, took a vacation to Oberammergau, Germany. The tranquility of the pastoral scene not only moves me to tears when I take the time to reflect on it, but its beauty deflects my otherwise keen memory from the unfortunate part of the trip–to wit, the deep animosity that developed over finances and a host of other petty issues.

Mrs. Peterson elicited from me a brief discussion of the difference between good and great photography, though I’ve learned over the years to bridle my exuberance when discussing refined or lofty topics with someone of limited attention span. It always leads to disappointment when the person I’m unguardedly sharing my passion with changes topics or otherwise shows signs of boredom. I hate getting worked up only to be let down by indifference; one should not cast pearls before swine.

Take for instance my attempt to have an intelligent conservation last week with a simpleton about Ansel Adam’s famous 1927 photograph of Half Dome in Yosemite. I started to explain his genius—the compositional balance, the textures he achieved, the subtle and judicious contrasts–and I didn’t use fancy jargon or technical terms. I was also trying to make the point that the photo is the result of his original approach to visualization; it came with painstaking work, as Adams would spend hours upon hours getting just the right exposure. The artist is no less the artisan, the genius no less the experimenter. And what did this philistine have to say in response to my explanation? Still, it would look better in color.

Peterson’s wife seemed at least mildly attentive to my excited response, but as I was explaining my approach to photography, Chad had the audacity to slip me his business card. He started out suggesting that I could get some business from him by making brochures for his company. I soon realized this friendly suggestion was just a ploy to foist his sales pitches on me. His “company” consisted solely of him working with an import wholesaler based in Dallas, and he had no intention of making brochures.

“How much do I owe you?” he asked. I pointed to the LCD display on the pin pad and smiled politely. He got out his wallet and continued to expound on his company’s success and expansion over the years. I heard his words, and subjected myself to his nicotine breath, but I was not listening.

“Our competitors have been left in the dust, unable to match our prices and quick service.” I could see dollar signs in his eyes as he uttered these lies and half-truths. The way he licked his index finger before thumbing through a wad of cash from his wallet reminded me of my stepfather who did the same thing, until his “accident” anyway. I winced with the recollection Russ’s slimy tongue and dirty beard.

“Will you take a credit card? I usually don’t carry cash with me,” he explained, as if his billfold betrayed him as less than the high roller he would have others believe him to be. I had already detected a curious disconnect between Peterson’s words and intentions; this lame explanation did not surprise me.

“Yes, that’ll be fine.”

Once he swiped his card and I made the transaction for services rendered, I couldn’t help myself from staring at his neck while he spoke. It was not my intention to make him nervous, but I could sense his unease. I got a rise out of his discomfort, but being a man without much below the surface, whatever self-awareness he was capable of didn’t last long. His apparent lack of self-awareness puzzled me in so far as his eyes bespoke of an enigma. How can a man like this, a vapid conversationalist and servant of mammon, be so mysterious? He kept prattling on mindlessly. I managed to get a word in edgewise, a brisk Thanks for coming in!, and I used body language to reiterate my intentions. I turned away from him to organize files I had stacked temporarily on the printer when they, the Ugly Five, had entered my shop ahead of their appointment. (You’ll forgive me for these unkind words, but such epithets make life bearable, don’t you agree? And to think, April, that bitch, alleged I didn’t have a humorous bone in my body!)

Were it not for Peterson’s evil neck and mesmerizing eyes I would have erased him from my mind after they left; but just as I was trying hard to forget their existence, Peterson strolled back into my studio with a book in his hand, wearing a mischievous grin as if to concede that our banal chit-chat a minute earlier had concluded with some degree of finality, or so I thought.

“Can I call you Matthew? Matt? Yes? Call me Chad.” Raised eyebrows were my only response. Back already are we? “Matt, I’m sure you’ll find something here to your liking.” He opened up a catalogue of wares, at the same time trying to read my face. I could have given him the fiercest countenance, the most horrific scowl to make the angels of hell tremble, but it would have no effect on this husk of a man, resolved as he was to waste my time and his.

“I got storage cabinets, taper candles, plush animals, rosewood cabinets, even picture frames.” The randomness of his list had much to do with him paging through the catalogue—not a riveting style of salesmanship, to put it mildly. “I do jewelry too, the best of the best, diamonds from South Africa, De Beers—and not blood diamonds, don’t worry about that—quality at a cheap price, and I can tell that you’re a young man of refinement and at the same time frugality. I respect that. If you are interested in gems, I’ll fetch some brochures from the car. Maybe something for that special someone?”

Social custom would have me confirm whether there was a special someone in my life, but I gave him nothing. Undeterred by my silence, he continued with his spiel, convinced that I could, or should, spruce up my studio with one of his worthless products. I’d even find something in his showroom, he assured me, that would improve my outlook, reduce clutter, and improve work conditions. What does he know about photography? About anything? What would I do with this garbage? Did I solicit his services? Does he even have an associate degree? All the while his family is waiting in the car: his corpulent wife, his chocolate-stained son, his bucktoothed eight-year-old daughter. Yes, I remember the details, but most of all I recall those eyes and that damned Adam’s apple.